Head shops - Warnings cannot be ignored

IN A society all too familiar with the consequences of alcohol abuse it may be hypocritical to argue for new controls to regulate a relatively new source of recreational drug substitutes.

That, however, does not mean it may not be necessary.

Regulation may be appropriate even if these outlets seem to have established an image of being a kind of harmless, light-hearted outlets for entirely legal substances. Yet, it seems we have reached that point with head shops.

Dr Bobby Smyth, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Health Service Executive youth drug and alcohol service in Tallaght, has suggested that using products sourced through head shops has “almost becoming a mainstream activity”.

Speaking at a recent conference Dr Smyth warned that he expected that up to 20% of the people presenting at his clinics this year will do so because of problems related to head shop sourced products.

If a well-regarded psychiatrist warns that one-in-five of his patients – that ratio was one-in-100 in 2008 – needs his help because of a relatively novel way of retailing substances that induce panic, paranoia, delirium, psychosis and cause a serious impact on the psychological health of the user we are obliged to take some sort of action.

Dr Smyth’s concerns have been reiterated by Dr Chris Luke, consultant in emergency medicine at Cork University Hospital and the Mercy University Hospital (MUH) in Cork, who has consistently warned of the dangers of the materials sold in head shops.

Dr Luke has argued that the “head shop highs” produced by synthetic cocaine powders such as Snow Blow, XXX and Charge, and “organic” leaves and seeds such as Salvia divinorum, were resulting in significant numbers of young people having to be hospitalised.

Last month in Cork, five patients were brought to the MUH emergency department suffering adverse reactions to such drugs, Dr Luke said.

Head shops have met opposition from communities right across the country and some have been destroyed in what are believed to be arson attacks.

They are a lucrative business as is indicated by the fact that almost €500,000 in cash was found under the floorboards of the Nirvana head shop on Capel Street in Dublin’s north inner city after it was destroyed by fire earlier this month.

The popularity of head shops can be seen by the fact that the website of this relatively small business has had more than 260,000 hits.

It is hard to see how people are happy to use unlicensed, untested and spurious head shop products especially as they can have such a devastating psychological impact.

Surely the possibility of damaging your mental health far outweighs what ever thrill using on-the-edge products brings?

Our frequently dysfunctional relationship with alcohol suggests we have a national disposition towards substance abuse – though we abuse ourselves far more than any substance. If we have learnt that hard lesson properly then we will regulate head shops. After all if the products are as benign as the retailers suggest they have nothing to fear.

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